Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Iowa 26, Nebraska 20

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

In a back and forth game that went to the last possession, Iowa made one more play than Nebraska and came away with a win in the Heroes Game, knocking off NU 26-20.

This time, the one play Iowa made was a sack of Adrian Martinez as Nebraska was driving for a winning touchdown, knocking the ball loose for Zach VanValkenburg (how did Wisconsin miss signing this kid?) to scoop up and end the game.

After last week’s debacle, Nebraska has gone from embarrassing back to maddening, so – progress? So in looking back at this game …

THE GOOD

Closing time. Adrian Martinez looks to have taken back his starting job at quarterback decisively, going 18-20 for 174 and no interceptions. Yes, Martinez gave up the game-sealing sack fumble. But let’s be honest, that was far more on his offensive line than on the quarterback.

More importantly, with Martinez Nebraska showed at least some semblance of a downfield passing threat. While certainly nothing that looks like a finished product, at the very least the threat of Martinez throwing downfield seemed to – at times – allow the offense to get in some semblance of a rhythm.

Luke McCaffrey is still a remarkable talent and head coach Scott Frost still refers to him as the future of Nebraska. But from where the two are now, it seems clear that Martinez as the signal-caller gives Nebraska’s offense its best chance to succeed.

Blackshirts are back. Be honest. After what you saw against Illinois, you were expecting an Iowa squad that bullied Minnesota and Penn State to run roughshod.

Instead, the Blackshirts held Iowa’s vaunted rushing attack to 2.9 yards per carry. Had Nebraska been sharper in other aspects of the game, that kind of performance should have been enough to win. At the very least, it showed Nebraska ready to stand toe-to-toe with Iowa physically – at least until Nebraska shoots itself in that toe it’s standing with.

Wan’Dale. I mean, what can you say about a guy who leads the team in rushing (six carries for 42 yards) and receiving (nine receptions for 75 yards)? It does seem like Nebraska has finally figured out ways to get Robinson the ball in ways that don’t involve lining him up at running back and smashing him against a B1G defensive line 15 times a game.

Add to it this quote after the game when asked about Nebraska fans doubting the team’s progress (as reported by Evan Bland of the Omaha World-Herald).

Keep doubting us. We’re going to get over the hump eventually. I know there’s a couple of us who will make sure that happens.

That’s the kind of leader you want in that locker room, Husker Fan. There’s plenty of ink spilled about quarterbacks and centers and coaches. But number 1 on offense might very well be the most important person in the room.

THE BAD

The third phase. For the second year in a row, poor special teams play cost Nebraska a game against Iowa. Last year, it was long kick returns. This year, it was the punt game, between allowing sizable returns and Cam Taylor-Britt’s muffed punt.

It’s as good a metaphor as any for where Nebraska is as a program. Special teams, more than offense and defense, is less about athletic talent and more about execution and attention to detail. Northwestern and Iowa have great special teams units. Nebraska’s has been varying degrees of a tire fire for the last two years.

The center experiment. Early on, Frost made a bold move, taking a highly-regarded tight end prospect and converting him to center. Last year, particularly early in the season, Nebraska struggled with the growing pains as Cameron Jurgens adjusted to his new duties and struggled delivering accurate shotgun snaps.

Against Iowa, Jurgens struggled again – and whatever effect Iowa’s clapping coaches had was about tenth on the list of things Jurgens struggled with. Nebraska had four drives that had snap issues. On three of those, Nebraska failed to score.

In a game of fine margins – and Nebraska is nowhere near good enough to win a game with anything less – that’s the difference between victory and defeat. As good as Jurgens is in other aspects of offensive line play – and he’s very good at a number of other aspects – Nebraska can simply not afford to continue to give away drives, possessions, and points based on inconsistent center snaps.

Field position. 54. 46. 55. 66. 30. 19.

Nebraska outgained Iowa, 338-322. Nebraska gained an average of 5.4 yards per play, compared to Iowa’s 4.3. So how did Iowa end up winning?

In large part, because those six numbers were the length of Iowa’s six scoring drives. That means all but one of those scoring drives started further out than the Iowa 45-yard line. And, back-breakingly, the two scoring drives that put Iowa ahead were only 30 and 19 yards long respectively.

To the credit of Nebraska’s defense, four of those six short scoring drives ended in field goals rather than touchdowns. But between turnovers and poor special teams play (see supra), Nebraska helped Iowa by giving it short fields to work with. And in a game of fine margins, that makes all the difference.

AND THE POVERTY OF LOW EXPECTATIONS

Last week’s loss to Illinois was enough to shake Nebraska fans to their core. It appeared that Nebraska had reverted back to where it was at the end of 2017, when it was simply and embarrassingly bullied and intimidated physically by mid-tier B1G competition. With that taste in your mouth, it was hard not to see Nebraska’s future – short-term and long-term – as anything other than bleak.

Nebraska’s performance against Iowa was, then, somewhat of a reassurance. The Illinois game, not the Iowa game or the Northwestern game, was the aberration. Take heart, Husker Fan, Nebraska is not the team that gets shoved off the field by Illinois. Instead, it’s the team that can outgain and either outplay or at least stand even with the best in the B1G West – and then find ways to lose.

That’s … cold comfort, to be sure. Nebraska’s future does not seem to be as hopeless as it did last week. But – as been repeated here many times – winning begets winning and losing begets losing. Nebraska as a program does not have the maturity to handle success, either in the micro or in the macro.

Bust a big run to get the ball within field goal range to tie the game? Holding penalty.

Get a three-and-out with Iowa inside its 30? Muff the punt and give up another field goal.

Get the ball inside Iowa’s 40 on a drive to win the game? Give up a sack through the A-gap and fumble away a sixth straight game.

Get a win against a team full of five-star recruits? Come out the following week with the worst loss in a decade for the program – and this is a team that lost at home to Troy, fer cryin’ out loud.

So yes, Nebraska has stopped the rot from last week at least. But Nebraska is guaranteed to have its fourth losing regular season in five years. And while a smart and particularly handsome analyst was right in that Nebraska fans should focus on one game at a time, it is hard not to notice just how far NU still is from what it was and what it aspires to be.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Ohio State 52, Nebraska 17

After a strong start, Nebraska fell victim to both its own mistakes and a top-flight Ohio State squad, losing its 2020 season opener to the Buckeyes, 52-17. The game was more than competitive throughout the first half, but a flurry of chances taken advantage of by Ohio State put the game beyond doubt early in the second half. So, in looking back at week one of the B1G 3.0 schedule for 2020 …

THE GOOD

Signs of Life: That first half felt pretty good, didn’t it Husker Fan? You could see it, starting to take shape, that proof-of-concept of what head coach Scott Frost is trying to build. You could see Nebraska competitive in a way that we haven’t seen for a while.

Unfortunately, Nebraska’s second half looked a lot like what we’ve seen earlier in terms of NU hurting itself. But after last year’s humiliation, to see Nebraska at least be able to be on the same field with Ohio State

Bringing Heat: Nebraska sacked Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields three times. Given how much Nebraska struggled with generating a pass rush last year, and that the entire defensive line was replaced, it’s an encouraging sign that Nebraska is able to generate enough of a pass rush even against an offensive line like Ohio State.

Competent Kicking: Placekicker Connor Culp wasn’t asked to do a lot, but looked like a competent FBS kicker. That in and of itself is a massive difference from last season. Remember, with a league-average placekicker, Nebraska last year is likely 7-5 with a win over Iowa. So that box, at the very least, is checked for Nebraska.

THE BAD

Self-Destruction: Nebraska was down 17-14 with three minutes to go in the first half and the ball. If Nebraska scores, they go into half with the lead. If they at least bleed the clock, they are within three points at the half.

Instead, Nebraska took a delay of game penalty to start the drive (!), went backwards on three plays, and punted the ball back to Ohio State at midfield. The Buckeyes punched in a touchdown, then scored on the first play of the second half, and all of a sudden it was 31-17.

That kind of summarized the second half. Penalties and turnovers helped snowball the game and let it get away from Nebraska. Ohio State is very, very good, probably College Football Playoff good. But Nebraska gave the Buckeyes a ton of help in the defeat.

Lack of Deep Threat: Nebraska’s quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey had a total of 290 yards of total offense – out of Nebraska’s total of 377. Wan’Dale Robinson was the only receiver with any catches (outside of garbage time), logging six grabs for 49 yards. I am not sure Nebraska threw more than one pass more than thirty yards downfield.

That’s not going to get it done against anyone, much less Ohio State. Junior college transfer Omar Manning wasn’t able to get into the game, which might have made a difference. But Nebraska’s got to find a way to manufacture some kind of deep threat or the offense is going to struggle.

The Outs: Every time Nebraska went to a single-high look, Nebraska’s secondary gave monstrous cushions to the outside receivers and left easy completions for 8-15 yards. For the most part, Nebraska’s defense held up fairly well (relative to Ohio State). And with both starting safeties for Nebraska missing the first half against Wisconsin for targeting calls.

Against Illinois (I know, I know), Wisconsin’s freshman quarterback Graham Mertz took advantage of soft outside coverage on the same kind of outs the whole game. If Nebraska is going to recover from this beating and compete against Wisconsin, that’s got to be fixed.

AND THE LONG VIEW

Ohio State wasn’t going to be the measuring stick for Nebraska’s progress. Nebraska, for the most part, held up physically against the Buckeyes, which is probably the most encouraging thing about the contest. For at least a half, Nebraska went toe-to-toe with the best team in the B1G.

Unfortunately, Nebraska in the second half looked quite a bit like the Nebraska we saw last year – sloppy, self-inflicted mistakes letting an opposing team get away. So next we we’re really going to see what this Nebraska team is going to be.

Wisconsin looked sharp in a comfortable win over Illinois on Friday. The Badgers clearly aren’t the same team without talents like Jonathan Taylor and Quintez Cephus. But like Wisconsin teams of the past, the Badgers know exactly who they are and will punish Nebraska if it can’t play cleaner.

So the season is off the ground. But next week, in many ways, the season really begins.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Five Reasons the Cornhuskers can Rebound in 2020

Nebraska hasn’t had a winning season since 2016. That’s hard to process when it’s seen in black and white. And while three years isn’t forever, Nebraska fans can be forgiven for feeling like it has been.

But there’s reason to think that, even in this pandemic-shortened season, Nebraska can finally show that it is turning that metaphorical corner. Here’s five reasons why you should be hopeful as the new season dawns.

GETTING DOWNHILL

If there was one specific area of disappointment for Nebraska in 2019, it was a lack of offensive performance. But towards the end of the season, as Nebraska’s offensive line began performing well, NU began leaning on downhill running with Dedrick Mills.

In the seventh through ninth games of the season, Mills never had more than ten carries in a game, and never averaged more than 3.75 yards per carry. But against Wisconsin and Iowa (two of the last three games), Mills had 17 and 24 carries, and averaged over 11 (!) yards per carry against the Badgers’ defense.

This year, Nebraska’s offensive line is starting from a much better place than last year. In 2019, the middle of Nebraska’s offensive line consisted of two walk-ons and a center who never played center. This year, Nebraska’s offensive line is both more experienced and more talented, and have a proven between-the-tackles thumper in Mills.

PROTECTING WAN’DALE

The second reason is related to the first. Last year, freshman phenom Wan’Dale Robinson was the most dynamic, dangerous part of Nebraska’s offense. Indeed, with the departure of Maurice Washington, the struggles of Adrian Martinez, and the injuries to J.D. Spielman, Robinson was the only offensive weapon.

The problem with that was it put so much pressure on Nebraska to over-use their best weapon. Robinson is five-foot-nine and 185 pounds. Robinson had games with 19, 22, and 14 carries. That’s too many for a player of his size, and we saw Robinson suffer from injury and diminished proportions.

In many ways, Robinson’s use last year echoed how De’mornay Pierson-El was used in 2016 and 2017. Pierson-El, like Robinson, was a diminutive, dynamic offensive weapon. Pierson-El, like Robinson, was at many times Nebraska’s only legitimate offensive weapon. Pierson-El, like Robinson, was exposed to far too much punishment from over-use, suffered injury, and ultimately never was able to realize his potential.

If Nebraska is able to establish more of a downhill attack, and has more weapons (see below), then Robinson will be able to be used properly, not over-used, and have a chance to fulfill his potential.

OPTIONS FOR MARTINEZ

Last year, receiver was an underwhelming position for Nebraska. Again, Robinson ended up being Nebraska’s only consistent weapon, particularly with Spielman’s injury.

This year, Nebraska has a number of tantalizing possibilities at receiver. Junior college transfer Omar Manning’s size and body type is tantalizing, although his injuries have limited his availability at least at the start of the season. Freshman Xavier Betts brings a similar size, and Alante Brown has possibility as a playmaking receiver.

Tight end has always been a little bit like Lucy with the football for Nebraska, as the possible talent always seems to be present but never quite materializes (otherwise known as the Mike McNeil effect). But this year could be different. Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek has all the attributes to be a dangerous offensive weapon, and Chris Hickman is now listed at wide receiver but is functionally a move tight end as well. Particularly with the uncertainty at wide receiver, tight end might take up the slack to provide additional weapons, and maybe force a second safety back and open up running lanes between the tackles as well.

DEONTAI’S BACK

Deontai Williams’ freshman year offered a tantalizing look at an immensely talented defensive back. At safety, Williams displayed the kind of talent and instincts that can be game-changing for a defense. Unfortunately, he struggled to carve out a role as a freshman, and was looking at his sophomore campaign to start making his mark.

An injury in the season opener derailed his entire 2019 season. But now he is back, healthy, and looks set to lead an experience secondary. While Nebraska might struggle with generating pressure, if Williams and the rest of the secondary can overachieve then Nebraska’s defense has a chance to shine.

COMPETENT KICKING

Yeah, last year was a rousing disappointment. But you can point to discrete events in a number of games – Wisconsin and Iowa being the most obvious – where even a competent placekicker would have either won the game or at least kept it very competitive. If that’s the only variable that changed, how would  you look back on a 7-5 record with wins over Wisconsin and Iowa last year, Husker Fan?

Nebraska made sure it wouldn’t be in the same situation this year, having four (!) punters and five (!!) placekickers on the 2020 roster. Michigan State transfer William Prystup will be the starting punter, and Connor Culp will be the starting placekicker. Specifically Culp, an LSU transfer who went 11-16 for field goals and 20-23 for extra points in 2017, will at least provide Nebraska with a legitimate FBS kicking option – something that was lacking last year. And just having that option will prevent Nebraska’s offense from being hamstrung as it was last year.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Reviewing the 2020 Recruiting Class (and a Super Six!)

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Nebraska’s 2020 recruiting class ended no. 20 nationally, no. 4 in the B1G, and no. 1 in the B1G West, according to 247 Sports. Let’s take a look at how the class breaks down, position-by-position. The “Composite” category is the 247 Composite star ranking. Players in bold are junior-college transfers, and players in italics are early-enrollees.

Quarterback

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Logan Smothers 6’2” 190 .8976 (4 star) DUAL

As long as Scott Frost is in Lincoln, Nebraska will likely be attempting to sign a highly-rated quarterback to fit his offensive system each year. Smothers certainly fits the bill, and looks to be as close to a clone of Adrian Martinez (at least freshman Adrian) that we’ve seen. He’s lightning-quick on the ground and a legitimate threat with his arm.

Running Back

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Sevion Morrison 5’11 ½” 196 .8941 (4 star) RB
Marvin Scott III 5’9” 203 .8647 (3 star) RB

Other than placekicker, perhaps no position suffered more at Nebraska in 2019 than running back, with Maurice Washington’s drama before his departure and Dedrick Mills’ slow start. Add to that Frost’s somewhat baffling use of Rahmir Johnson’s four-game redshirt, and Nebraska’s running back room was pretty thin.

Next year’s depth should be much better, with Mills and Johnson returning along with whatever Ronald Thompkins can offer after a year of recovering from injury. Morrison looks to have the skills of an all-around back, while Scott profiles as a between-the-tackles thumper.

Receivers

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Zavier Betts 6’2” 189 .9506 (4 star) WR
Marcus Fleming 5”9 ½” 160 .9075 (4 star) WR
Omar Manning 6’4” 225 .9053 (4 star) WR
Alante Brown 6’0” 190 .8976 (3 star) WR
William Nixon 5’11” 185 .8647 (3 star) WR

Yeah, I know I just got done talking about how Nebraska’s running back depth was the worst. I kinda forgot about how dreadful the wide receiver room looked. Even if JD Spielman does return to Lincoln for his junior season (which is an open question), Nebraska will still likely be looking to walk-on Kade Warner to fill out a third receiving option in addition to Wan’Dale Robinson.

So it’s no surprise that receiver was such a significant target in this year’s class. If they’re able to make grades, Betts and Manning look to be ready to contribute right away (particularly Manning, given his previous experience at the collegiate level), and Brown’s speed (along with him enrolling early) give him a chance to contribute right away as well.

Offensive Line

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Turner Corcoran 6’6” 280 .9751 (4 star) OT
Alex Conn 6’6” 280 .8647 (3 star) OT

For all the talk of Frost’s offense being gimmicky and finesse, it’s no accident that the highest-rated prospect in 2020 is an offensive lineman. After last year’s recruiting haul, Nebraska definitely had the luxury of choosing quality over quantity in 2020. Offensive line is an area that needs patience to see fruits on the field, but the combination of Nebraska’s 2019 and 2020 classes have done quite a bit to lay  a new foundation.

Defensive Line

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Blaise Gunnerson 6’5” 250 .8801 (3 star) SDE
Jordon Riley 6’5” 330 .8524 (3 star) SDE
Nash Huntmacher 6’5” 285 .8722 (3 star) DT
Jimari Butler 6’5” 217 .8621 (3 star) WDE
Marquis Black 6’4” 280 .8614 (3 star) DT
Nico Cooper 6’5” 220 .8594 (3 star) WDE
Pheldarius Payne 6’3” 270 .8541 (3 star) SDE

Nebraska’s defensive line was one of its strengths in 2019. Which is a problem in 2020, as all three starters (Khalil Davis, Darrion Daniels and maybe Carlos Davis) look to be on NFL rosters next year. So restocking the cupboard on the defensive line was a priority in 2020. Like the offensive line, defensive line is difficult to contribute right away, but Nebraska does have a couple of candidates in junior college transfers Riley and Payne.

Linebackers

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Keyshawn Greene 6’3” 195 .9387 (4 star) OLB
Eteva Mauga-Clemens 6’2” 218 .8688 (3 star) OLB

Another quality over quantity position, Nebraska was looking for weapons to bolster an anemic pass rush. Clemens, as a junior college transfer, should provide some immediate depth, and Greene as a signing-day decision was one of the players that got Husker Twitter very excited.

Secondary

Name Height Weight Composite Position
Henry Gray 6’0” 172 .9064 (4 star) S
Jaiden Francois 6’0” 184 .9047 (4 star) S
Isaac Gifford 6’0” 175 .8434 (3 star) S
Tamon Lynum 6’2” 165 .8375 (3 star) CB
Ronald Delancey III 5’11” 160 .8551 CB

The easiest way to improve a pass rush is, of course, to get better pass rushers. But improving the secondary is an indirect way to accomplish the same goal. Nebraska’s talent haul in the secondary might be the sneakiest addition in the class, with Gray and Francois talented enough to compete for playing time as freshmen.

Super Six for 2020

6. Sevion Morrison (RB). Mills finally looked to get some momentum (not to mention carries) towards the end of 2019, and looks set to enter next season as Nebraska’s bell-cow. And while Johnson definitely flashed, Morrison showed at the high school level that he has the skills needed to be an all-around running back.

5. Henry Gray (S). It would have been just as easy to put Francois here as Gray, as adding four-star talent to the secondary will reap benefits. But Gray is also a prolific peer recruiter, at least as seen on his Twitter account, and the value of such peer recruiting can’t be ignored.

4. Keyshawn Greene (OLB). Nebraska’s linebacker corps, particularly at outside linebacker, definitely needed an infusion of talent, and Greene looks to be an effective pass rushing weapon. Just as importantly, Greene’s decision to pick Nebraska on signing day shows Frost still has the credibility amongst incoming high school players to close on recruits.

3. Turner Corcoran (OL). The highest-rated prospect probably has to be on the list somewhere, and here he is. Nothing on any offense works without and offensive line to make it work. And last year’s offensive struggles can be explained in part by having two walk-on guards and a center who never played center before. Corcoran, along with the recruiting work done in 2019, looks to upgrade the athleticism and talent level on the pipeline.

2. Logan Smothers (QB). Other than perhaps goalkeeper in hockey, no position is more important than quarterback. Smothers has all the tools Frost wants to run his offense – speed, arm talent, and leadership. If Martinez continues to struggle, and Luke McCaffrey is not able to grow in his ability to throw the ball, it’s not a silly prospect to thing Smothers could win the starting job at some point in 2020.

1. Omar Manning (WR). Nebraska needed – not wanted, needed – immediate help at receiver. Manning’s arrival not only provides an immediate starter, it gives Nebraska something it didn’t really have last year – a prototypical no. 1 receiver with the size to win contested balls as well as the speed and route running to get open. Manning’s arrival – assuming he makes grades – will have the single biggest effect on Nebraska’s 2020 squad.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU ReView, Nebraska 42, Illinois 38

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Yeah, I know this is late. Given the level of stress induced by this game, it took a few days to recover.

Nebraska fell behind on the second play of the game and trailed for most of the contest, looking for all the world like it was finding yet another way to lose a game away from home. But late in the third quarter, Nebraska found its mojo and was able to grind out that elusive road win.

Of course, Nebraska missed a chance to make it easy on itself and its fans, having to settle for a field goal after having a first-and-goal at the one, then taking points off the board with a penalty, then missing the ensuing attempt. But a stout Blackshirt defensive stand (along with maybe a missed pass interference call) helped Nebraska escape with its third win of the season.

So in reviewing Nebraska’s cardiac-care win over Illinois …

The Good

Adversity Responded. With 5:40 left in the third quarter, Nebraska was losing to Illinois 35-21, and it looked to all the world like NU was going to continue its futility on the road. But Nebraska was able to rally, scoring three touchdowns and holding Illinois to just a field goal to escape Champaign with a win.

That’s a sign of strength, Husker Fan. It’s not at all difficult to see previous Nebraska squads having that level of adversity stare them in the face and wilt into defeat. Instead, Nebraska accepted the challenge and performed under immense pressure, and emerged victorious. Just like losing begets losing, winning begets winning, and this win coming through a cauldron of adversity can do nothing but provide confidence for the squad going forward.

DubRob. Yeah, this kid might work out after all. True freshman Wan’Dale Robinson led Nebraska in both number of carries (19) and number of receptions (8), for 186 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. And with Maurice Washington out injured and Dedrick Mills fumbling, Robinson showed he was able to run between the tackles with power in addition to being a matchup nightmare on the perimeter.

And yes, the old white guy is going to try to make DubRob a thing.

Numbers Don’t Lie. Take a look at ESPN’s Bill Connelly’s advanced statistical analysis for the game.

Without getting too far into the weeds, Nebraska putting up 690 (!) yards of total offense against Illinois meant that, just looking at the numbers, NU had a 97 percent chance of winning the game. So yes, that feeling you had of Nebraska trying to wrest defeat from the jaws of victory is borne out by the numbers.

But think about how you’d feel if, somehow, Nebraska didn’t have those turnovers and mental mistakes. If Nebraska was able to put up the offensive show it did and not step on rake after rake, this game would have been a blowout. And maybe the upcoming showdown with the Buckeyes wouldn’t seem quite as daunting.

*looks at Ohio State’s 2019 performance*

Or, maybe it still would seem pretty daunting.

The Bad

Adversity Created. It’s great to overcome adversity. It’s less great when the adversity you overcome is created by your own mistakes and ill-discipline. Illinois shocked Nebraska on the second play from scrimmage with a 66-yard touchdown run from Reggie Corbin. Illinois also scored on drives of 37, 2, 14, and 30 yards, meaning Nebraska handed Illinois four separate point-blank opportunities to score and create a hole for Nebraska to dig out of.

Not-So-Special Teams. Well, so much for Nebraska being Kicker U (as coined by a smart and particularly handsome analyst). With injuries to Barrett Pickering and Dylan Jorgensen, Nebraska has been scrounging for anyone who can kick the ball through the uprights and out of the end zone. Nebraska is (hide the children’s eyes for this) no. 117 nationally in PAT accuracy and no. 123 nationally in field goal accuracy. Nebraska’s inability to get a deep (and high) kickoff has led to opponents having great field position, putting even more pressure on a defense already stretched from offensive inconsistencies.

Nebraska is hoping that Matt Waldoch, a new walkon who played for the club soccer team FC Bugeaters, will help provide some answers. Unless Pickering is able to get back to full health soon, though, it could be a massive source of trouble for Nebraska.

The Looming Challenge. Nebraska is 3-1, and isn’t all that far away from being 4-0 (and probably nationally ranked) coming in to this weekend’s game. But anyone who has watched Nebraska this season knows that NU has not come close to putting together a truly complete four-quarter performance. Even in Nebraska’s most comfortable win over Northern Illinois, the Huskies missed two wide open deep shots that, had they hit, could have changed the complexion of the game.

And, oh, by the way, the Ohio State squad coming to Lincoln looks much more formidable than had been anticipated this offseason. New head coach Ryan Day and quarterback Justin Fields look to be hitting on all cylinders. Last week, Ohio State fell behind Miami (OH) 5-0 in Columbus – and won the game 76-5.

The Buckeyes look to all the world like a playoff team. If the inconsistent and ill-disciplined Nebraska team that showed up in Champaign takes the field on Saturday, the Buckeyes will murder them.

And the Unearned Glory

Moments after Nebraska’s win, ESPN made an announcement.

There’s an argument to be made that having Gameday in Lincoln is nothing but a good thing. It gives Nebraska additional national exposure, and can do nothing but help Nebraska’s image in recruiting. While the Buckeyes are a two-touchdown-plus favorite, and there is a distinct possibility of another prime-time humiliation for Nebraska, the presence of Gameday at a program which posted two consecutive 4-8 seasons is a testament to Nebraska’s staying power.

But there’s a darker side to Nebraska getting more unearned attention. Throughout the offseason, the fanbase – and, let’s be honest, the players and the coaches – were bathed in the Kool-Aid of lofty expectations, top-25 rankings, and the trappings of status not yet earned on the field. Sure, the coaches preached all the right things about not having earned anything, but let’s not forget these are college kids having their ears filled with how great they already are.

I refuse to believe all those unearned accolades from the offseason didn’t contribute in part to the slow start against South Alabama and the collapse in the second half against Colorado. Four turnovers and eleven (!) penalties against Illinois – including two on kickoffs as the kicking team – also speaks to a lack of focus and discipline. It’s a disturbing call-back to last year when Frost referred to his squad as playing like “one of the most undisciplined teams in the country.”

Culture change takes time, and one thing Nebraska has clearly not demonstrated is an ability to handle success – the “this is why Nebraska can’t have nice things” syndrome. Memorial Stadium should be electric, with an atmosphere not seen since 2014 Miami, or maybe 2007 USC. And perhaps Nebraska will shock the world and finally get that signature, program-defining win.

If it does, then Nebraska really will have something to puff its chest out about. Until then, basking in unearned glory does little but stunt the growth and potential of a talented squad under a promising and exciting head coach. There’s plenty of glory you can see on Nebraska’s horizon – but getting greedy and claiming it before its earned will bring little but heartache and disappointment.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: NU Re-View, Nebraska 35, South Alabama 21

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“Sit down,

[EXPLETIVE DELETED] be humble”

– Kendrick Lamar, “Humble”

After a Kool-aid soaked offseason, Nebraska fans didn’t quite get the relaxing blowout they expected to start year two of the Scott Frost Experience. An opportunistic defense along with a special teams touchdown helped Nebraska surprise a shockingly-anemic offensive performance and survive the Jaguars 35-21.

Even though Nebraska survived and advanced, the mood walking out of Memorial Stadium was eerily similar to after the Northern Illinois loss in 2017. So let’s look back at the newly-minted 1-0 Cornhusker football squad and see what we see.

THE GOOD

Defense to Offense. Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has long preached that he wants to see his defense turn into offense for NU to be successful. Well, mission accomplished in week one. Eric Lee’s pick-six to open the second half gave life to Memorial Stadium and looked to be the spark to revitalize a stumbling Nebraska squad.

Unfortunately, a lack of offensive performance allowed South Alabama back in the game, having the ball down 28-21. But after Cam Taylor blind-side sacked USA quarterback Cephus Johnson and knocked the ball loose, Alex Davis fell on it in the end zone and gave Nebraska a 35-21 lead.

Without those two defensive scores, given how invisible the offense was, it’s easy to see a scenario where Nebraska loses this game.

The Hype is Real. All eyes were on electric true freshman Wan’Dale Robinson to see if he could live up to the hype. Although he muffed the opening kickoff (which could have been an eerie foreshadowing of things to come), Nebraska’s offense still found plenty of ways to get the talented receiver the ball in space. Robinson ended up with four carries for 21 yards and three receptions for 33 yards, along with 77 kick return yards. In the process, he showed the speed and elusiveness that earned him a starting spot as a true freshman.

Robinson and Martinez also just missed hooking up on two touchdown passes, with the receiver and the quarterback clearly not on the same page with regards to the route. So in his first game, we saw from Robinson plenty already, with the promise of more to come.

The Book of Eli. An injury to safety Deontai Williams pressed the rest of the depth chart into action, including walkon safety Eli Sullivan. He took advantage of his opportunity, recording four tackles and finding himself all over the field in the second half. While a speedy recovery for Williams would be best for Nebraska’s defense, Sullivan’s performance has to be an encouraging sign.

THE BAD

Up The Middle. If you didn’t know anything else, you’d think that a team with two walkon guards and a center who never played center would be a huge problem in the middle of the offensive line, one that could make a running game struggle and throw the rhythm of an entire offense off.

Well …

While it was exciting to see redshirt freshman Cameron Juergens be able to start at center, it soon became exciting in a very different way when he was forcing Martinez to reach or jump for almost every other shotgun snap. The worst-case scenario was a snap that flew over Martinez’ head, ending up with a “best case” scenario of Martinez recovering it for what would ultimately be a 24-yard sack.

Juergens was replaced in the second half by Will Farniok, and the snaps certainly improved. But Juergens’ superior athleticism was evident, as Nebraska struggled even more trying to run between the tackles. Nebraska pretty much had no running success at all (44 carries, 98 yards, 2.2 yards per carry), but what they were able to get was manufactured on the outside.

In his postgame interviews, Frost talked about a lack of execution. Nebraska fans best hope that’s the case, because if that’s the offensive line play NU has this year, it’s hard to see how they win in the B1G.

Who Was That Guy And What Did He Do With Adrian Martinez? Nebraska’s opening drive was a thing of beauty, nine plays for 81 yards, with Martinez taking advantage of tight end Jack Stoll down the seams.

After that, Nebraska only had 195 yards of total offense. Against South Alabama.

Throughout the rest of the game, Martinez looked tentative both running and throwing. His one interception – and he should have had about three – was a bad underthrow into a whole host of Jaguar defenders. On the bad snap, Martinez was able to pick the ball up and make a play – but ended up falling on the ball rather than take advantage of what seemed to be an opportunity to throw it away.

Martinez still is a sophomore, of course, and expectations for his performance may have been unrealistic. Everyone, even Martinez, can have a bad day at the office. But if Nebraska gets this guy instead of last year’s Martinez, then this could be a long year for the scarlet and cream faithful.

College Football Is Dumb and Wonderful. Purdue lost to Nevada. Minnesota struggled at home against FCS South Dakota State. Florida State lost at home to Boise State. Tennessee lost at home to Georgia State. Iowa State needed three overtimes to beat Northern Iowa at home. Kansas needed a miracle to beat Indiana State at home. West Virginia labored to beat James Madison at home.

The point being is that college football is a game played by college kids, which means it is subject to wild, unpredictable, seemingly random results, especially early in the year. It’s why the sport is such a glorious mess, and something that you can’t possibly stop watching.

AND THE READJUSTMENT OF EXPECTATIONS

All this offseason, the Nebraska fanbase got itself all worked up thinking that NU was on the cusp of its return to greatness. Visions of playoffs danced in their minds, and Nebraska was a trendy darkhorse pick even to win a national title.

While that was fun for the offseason, there always was a danger that the reality may not match the expectation. And with a fanbase that has been promised and let down so much over the last two decades, there was always a danger of a backlash.

Now, let’s be clear. Nebraska is 1-0, and all those dreams are still alive. But after watching Nebraska labor to beat a Sun Belt team that went 3-9 last year, a few fewer tickets to Pasadena may be purchased in the Cornhusker state.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Watching Nebraska against South Alabama felt much more like NU in the last five years as opposed to a redux of the nineties. And that’s a good thing. Nebraska is still a team coming off two 4-8 seasons. While there’s lots of promise, a game like this shows that there’s plenty of work for Nebraska still to do.

But if you’re down, Husker Fan, think about this. There wasn’t anyone in Memorial Stadium watching this game that didn’t think it felt like Northern Illinois in 2017, or any of the other myriad of games against outmatched opponents Nebraska would find a way to lose.

And yet Nebraska didn’t lose. Nebraska found a way to win. It was a way that no one really expected. But there’s no style points listed in the standings – 1-0 is still 1-0, regardless of how ugly it was.

Maybe that’s part of the culture change Frost is trying to establish. Instead of underperforming and finding a way to lose, Nebraska opened 2019 underperforming and finding a way to win.

Baby steps, Husker Fan.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Five Players Who Need to Emerge for the Cornhuskers

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As the calendar has turned to July, excitement about the 2019 Nebraska football season is turning to a fever pitch. Multiple national outlets are predicting Nebraska to win the B1G West and be a dark-horse College Football Playoff contender, even coming off consecutive 4-8 seasons.

There’s plenty of reasons for that optimism, of course. Head coach Scott Frost has a proven track record of success, including his remarkable turnaround of UCF. Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez put on an amazing show last season – the second coming of Russell Wilson, at times – and should do nothing but improve in 2019. Nebraska’s schedule is far less daunting on paper than last year’s, with no Michigan and games against Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa at home. And if you look at the analytics, Nebraska’s expected wins from 2018 shows the team wasn’t nearly as bad as the final record suggests.

But the 2019 Nebraska squad is young, with significant holes to fill from a team that has been 8-16 in the last two years. So if Nebraska is going to match those lofty expectations, these players must be able to be effective.

Cameron Jurgens

Jurgens arrived in Lincoln as a highly-touted tight end prospect. But an ankle injury and a crowded tight end room gave Frost an opportunity to propose a position change for Jurgens. And not a small one either – from tight end to center. Jurgens took to the position change well, according to Brent Wagner of the Lincoln Journal-Star.

“I mean, shoot, you get to line up and hit someone every play, what’s wrong with that?” Jurgens said. “I love it. I get to be physical every play.”

It’s a great attitude. But it doesn’t change the fact that if Jurgens starts at center in 2019 – and it’s likely that he will – it will be his first time taking a snap in anger at the position. Given how crucial the center position is, and what a big ask it would be for Jurgens to go from tight end to starting B1G center in less than a year – Nebraska will need Jurgens to be a quick study.

Dedrick Mills

Devine Ozigbo’s breakout senior season last year was a delightful surprise, and helped salvage the position after transfer running back Greg Bell failed to deliver and ultimately transferred out of the program. But Ozigbo is with the Saints now, and the fate of Maurice Washington is very much up in the air.

Nebraska does have some talented freshmen coming to campus. But the bulk of the responsibility for success at the running back position will come from Mills, a junior college transfer who started his college career at Georgia Tech.

Mills arrives with power-five running back experience, and looks well suited to hit the ground (pardon the pun) running on day one. But we haven’t seen him in a Nebraska uniform yet, certainly not against B1G defenses. How Mills answers that call will go a long way towards how well Nebraska will be able to meet the lofty expectations it carries this summer.

Wan’Dale Robinson

Of course, Robinson almost didn’t end up in Lincoln. Originally Robinson committed to Kentucky, but with the persistence of the Nebraska coaching staff Robinson changed his mind and became one of the standouts of Frost’s first recruiting class.

While Nebraska does have a crowded receivers room, no one quite has the combination of speed and elusiveness that Robinson brings. A perfect fit for Frost’s Duck-R running back/wide receiver hybrid, Robinson has the potential to bring an entirely new dynamic to Nebraska’s offense. And with a shaky receiver corps after J.D. Spielman, if Nebraska’s offense is going to shine it’s going to need some extra dynamism in 2019.

Deontai Williams

It’s not like Williams didn’t see the field in 2018 as a sophomore. He played in 12 games, and at times flashed the kind of athleticism that could make him a special talent at safety. But he struggled to maintain playing time, particularly behind seniors Aaron Williams, Antonio Reed, and Tre Neal.

Well, that’s not going to be a problem this year. Williams has the athleticism and talent to be an impact player on defense, particularly at safety. But Nebraska needs Williams to be far more consistent if he’s going to take on a starter’s role.

Darrion Daniels

It’s a little strange to say that a player is going to be critical on the defensive line, given that it is likely Nebraska’s strongest and deepest position group. But this is also the group that struggled mightily against the run, and was likely Nebraska’s biggest Achilles’ heel against power-running B1G teams like Wisconsin and Iowa.

So Nebraska needs much better play, particularly in run defense, from its defensive line. But even more so, a graduate transfer like Daniels can bring leadership, attitude, and a level of toughness and experience that might help Nebraska’s defensive line find its potential and be a leader amongst position groups in 2019.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Position-by-Position Breakdown of the Spring Game

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On Saturday, Nebraska had its final practice of the spring, and over 85,000 people happened to show up and watch. The Spring Game, won by the Red squad 24-13, gave Nebraska fans a booster shot of football to get them through the long hot summer before South Alabama Week arrives.

Sure, it looked like a game and it sounded like a game. But remember, it’s just practice, and just one practice at that. So the standard caveat of “don’t read too much into this” applies. Having said that, though, it’s all we’ve got to work with, so let’s take a look position-by-position and see what we’ve learned about Nebraska’s upcoming campaign.

Quarterback

Weirdly, it’s easy to forget about Adrian Martinez. Closing Time is not only consistently remarkable, but he is so mature and undramatic that he’s easy to think of as a known quantity. And in a time where Nebraska has so many other questions to answer, fans can be forgiven for filing the signal-caller away and thinking “we’re good, Adrian’s here.”

That’s not wrong, of course. But it makes it easy to forget just how good 2AM is. Check out his touchdown throw here (starting at 0:51) and you’ll see what I mean. Martinez rolls to his left, uses his acceleration to evade a defender, then on the run against his body delivers a perfect 21-yard strike to a well-covered Jaron Woodyard.

It was a remarkable feat, but it feels like the play was somewhat lost in the shuffle only because we seem inured to Martinez’s consistent displays of awesome. (And that’s not even taking into account Woodyard’s amazing hoodie he wore under his pads!) We shouldn’t. Martinez is the most talented offensive player that’s worn scarlet-and-cream since Ameer Abdullah, and that’s just seeing him as a freshman. I maintain that he’s the second coming of Russell Wilson, and Nebraska fans should not take that for granted.

Behind Martinez, Noah Vedral looked smooth and confident, much different than the tentative and rusty version of himself we saw against Bethune-Cookman last year. Clearly, not being bounced between Nebraska and UCF and being able to settle into his role has made a difference. Andrew Bunch also looked solid and smooth, clearly benefitting from a year in the program.

Running Back

Keep in mind that there are four players (incoming freshmen Ronald Thompkins and Rahmir Johnson, transfer Dedrick Mills, and sophomore Maurice Washington) that didn’t play in the Spring Game this year. So the guys we saw on Saturday have a steep hill to climb just to make the two-deep.

Having said that, Jaylin Bradley looked good, with great lateral movement and decisiveness. Brody Belt and Wyatt Mazour were both very effective in the roles they were given. And Miles Jones got a good look on the White squad, although he still looks more effective as a pass-catcher rather than a running back.

Wide Receiver

Much like with running back, it’s hard to judge what we saw with the absence of incoming freshman Wan’Dale Robinson and junior JD Spielman. A number of players had opportunities to make a splash, and really didn’t. Woodyard looked good with his touchdown grab (and his hoodie!) but also missed a reception on the sideline. Andre Hunt seemed to get more into the game in the second half, and certainly has the frame to be the X receiver Nebraska is looking for. Jaime Nance had a few opportunities to show off his speed but was largely contained. And Kade Warner got loose again for a big play early in the game – do not be surprised if Warner ends up as a starter once we get to South Alabama week.

Tight End

A sneaky strength of the team. Projected starter Jack Stoll was unable to participate, so we got to see a lot of Austin Allen, Kurt Rafdal, and Katerian LeGrone. All three – although more Allen and LeGrone in this game – demonstrated the type of mismatches that these massive pass-catchers can present to a defense. Having an offensive difference-maker at tight end has been a unicorn Nebraska has hunted for many years – but 2019 might be the year it bears fruit.

Offensive Line

It looks like the tackles for Nebraska’s offensive line are pretty well set, with Brendon Jaimes and Matt Farniok installed on the ends. It’s in the middle that the questions arise. Walkons Boe Wilson and Trent Hixson look to be in pole position at guard, while the center position looks up in the air with competition between converted tight end Cameron Juergens, walkon AJ Forbes, and redshirt freshman Will Farniok in the mix.

“In the air” might be a poor choice of words for the center competition, as a number of the shotgun snaps were errant enough that the quarterbacks had to show off their athletic ability to keep the ball off the ground and avoid a disaster. Center in specific, and offensive line in general, is the biggest question about Nebraska going into 2019.

Defensive Line

The strength of the 2019 squad, at least at this point. Nebraska’s defensive line – particularly at nose tackle – finally look the part of a Big Ten defensive line. The Daniels brothers (Darrion and Damion) and the Davis brothers (Khalil and Carlos) look ready to be far more stout against the run and generate an interior pass rush. Add in Ben Stille, and newly-added junior college transfer Jahkeem Green, and the defensive line could go from a disappointment in 2018 to a strength in 2019.

Linebacker

At inside linebacker, Mohammed Barry may well be the best player on the defensive squad. The depth behind him, though, is what is of concern. Collin Miller looked the part next to him, with Nebraska needing to count on a return to health from Will Honas and a contribution from true freshman Jackson Hannah for 2019.

At outside linebacker, JoJo Domann looks to be settled in to his role, and with some additional depth at safety it may be that he can settle there. Alex Davis looked the role as a pass rusher and athletic coverage weapon – but he did at last year’s Spring Game, so a word of caution still needs to be heard. Quayshon Alexander and Breon Dixon also showed flashes, which may help provide depth.

Secondary

Nebraska’s starting cornerbacks, Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle, are pretty well set. Cam Taylor will likely be the third cornerback up next season, with incoming freshmen like Noa Pola-Gates and Myles Farmer likely to get their first look at corner.

At safety, Deontai Williams looked to be the best athlete of the crew last season, and if he’s learned the defense then he could be the breakout Blackshirt of 2019. Marquel Dismuke looked comfortable at the other safety position, with Cam’ron Jones and C.J. Smith pushing for playing time.

Specialists

No one really stood out punting, meaning that Isaac Armstrong likely will be keeping his role at starter. Caleb Lightbourn announced that he was transferring, which will leave Armstrong a clear field at the position.

As for placekicker, well … *whispers* Barret Pickering hasn’t missed a kick since October 13, 2018, at Northwestern. It seemed like Nebraska fans kind of set their impressions of Pickering based on his early season struggles last year – and, in fairness, Pickering’s missed kicks (a field goal and an extra point) likely cost Nebraska a win in Evanston. But he also was a crucial part of Nebraska’s all-grit win over Michigan State, kicking three field goals in the snow. A smart and particularly handsome analyst referred to Nebraska as Kicker U, and just maybe Pickering can be next in that legacy.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: What to Watch For at the Spring Game

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On Saturday, Nebraska will conclude Spring Practice with the annual Red-White Spring Game. Of course, it’s not exactly a game, more the final practice of the season with 90,000 fans watching. So everything about the Spring Game should be taken with that particular grain of salt in mind.

Of course, the most important thing to watch for on Saturday is simply this – we get to see Nebraska football again. We haven’t seen Nebraska football since Black Friday in Iowa City, so getting this fix will help tide us all over until it’s South Alabama week.

But there are a few things to keep an eye on as you watch head coach Scott Frost run his second Spring Game at Nebraska.

Standout Freshmen

One of the most exciting parts about the Spring Game is the chance to see the early-enrollee freshman on the field and get a glimpse of the future. Wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, of course, is the crowning jewel of these freshmen, although injuries may limit what he’s able to accomplish on Saturday. Receiver Jaime Nance and tight end Chris Hickman could also provide a view of what’s to come for Nebraska as additional offensive weapons. And Nebraska fans could be very excited to see a glimpse of quarterback Luke McCaffrey, and if nothing else have some faith that Nebraska’s offense won’t fall off a cliff if something happens to Adrian Martinez.

A Number One in the Making?

Junior wide receiver JD Spielman is the only real certainty coming back at wide receiver for Nebraska. After that, there’s a whole bunch of questions. And Spielman, while a dangerous receiver, doesn’t necessarily have the skill set to be a true number one receiver, with the body size and type to absorb that level of completions

So who on the spring roster could make a move for that position? According to the Lincoln Journal-Star, offensive coordinator Troy Walters said that Andre Hunt has been continuing to improve. Jaron Woodyard and Mike Williams never really grabbed their opportunity last year. Jaevon McQuitty should have his first real opportunity this year after injury.  Kade Warner got plenty of playing time last year, but would need to show he’s got the skill set to step up into that expanded role.

Running Back Opportunity

One of Nebraska’s biggest question marks next year will be at running back. Maurice Washington is clearly the best returning back, but the uncertainty regarding his legal situation in California leaves his ability to contribute next season in doubt. In the fall, Nebraska should have transfer Dedrick Mills and freshmen Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins to compete for playing time.

That means this spring will be critical for sophomore running back Jaylin Bradley, along with redshirt freshman Brody Belt and senior Wyatt Mazour, to make their mark. Keep your eye on these players to see if they will be able to stake a claim for a spot on the depth chart once the running back room fills up this fall.

Offensive Line Composition

It might not be easy to get a handle on what the starting offensive lineup is looking to be, in part because the depth chart is still in flux, according to Hail Varsity. Competition for center should be one of the most fascinating, to see if Cameron Jurgens can complete his transition from tight end (!) to center. Walkons Hunter Miller and Trent Hixson look like they have real shots to earn playing time. Brendan Jaimes should be locked in at tackle, but it will be interesting to see if Matt Farniok can stick at the other tackle spot, or ultimately move inside once freshman phenom Bryce Benhart arrives this fall.

Second Season Chances

Either through injury or getting buried on the depth chart, there’s a number of players who didn’t meet their potential in their first year in Lincoln last year. 2019 provides a fresh start and, for many of them, a second chance to make their mark on the program.

Redshirt freshman Miles Jones, with his combination of speed and elusiveness, looked tailor made to play in Frost’s offense, but injuries derailed his 2018 campaign. Same for junior middle linebacker Will Honas, who was thought to be one of the keys to defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s transition last season, but was sidelined by injury. When sophomore outside linebacker Breon Dixon transferred to Nebraska from Ole Miss, it was hard not to be excited about a player with SEC speed being added to the depth chart. Dixon was never able to find much in the way of playing time last year, though, and 2019 should give him a chance to be the answer to Nebraska’s pass rush problems.

Keep your eye on these three and whether they are able to lay a claim to playing time this fall.

GBR, baby.

Nebraska Football: Spring Football Preview

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On Monday, Nebraska started spring practice in its second year under head coach Scott Frost. Unseasonably frigid temperatures kept work inside as the squad opened preparation for the Spring Game on April 13.

This is now Nebraska’s second straight season without a bowl game, meaning a second long winter of waiting for Nebraska football. So spring practice should bring a welcome relief for Nebraska fans weathering yet another cold winter of discontent. Here’s what to keep an eye on as spring practice begins.

OFFENSE

Returning Strengths

  • Quarterback. There is little doubt that Adrian Martinez is the biggest reason for Nebraska’s optimism in 2019. Martinez’s accomplishments last season have at least one Las Vegas sports book listing him as third-favorite for the Heisman next year. That might be a little optimistic, but at least Nebraska is coming into next year’s campaign with its situation at signal-caller settled.
  • Y and Z Receivers. JD Spielman is clearly Nebraska’s most dangerous receiving threat returning next season, and incoming freshman Wandale Robinson looks perfectly set to excel in the slot. While not every receiving position is clear (see infra), Nebraska does have a lot to lean on at receiver.
  • Tight End. Jack Stoll could very well be one of the team leaders next season, and Kurt Rafdal and Austin Allen both saw increased playing time towards the end of 2018. Kateriene Legrone should also have an opportunity to see the field, giving Nebraska at least four dangerous options to create mismatch opportunities and challenge the middle of the field.

Biggest Questions

  • Offensive Line. Nebraska does have quite a bit of returning talent, but it’s not entirely certain how it is going to fit together. And center for Nebraska is one of the biggest open questions, which is always a challenge. There’s enough talent for Nebraska’s offensive line to be successful, but it is still unproven.
  • X Receiver. Nebraska will be looking for a true no. 1, go-to receiver to make catches that get first downs as well as threaten downfield. Stanley Morgan’s leadership and production will be a huge challenge for Nebraska to replace, and while there is significant depth at receiver, it is unclear who (if any) in that room will be able to fill that role.
  • Running Back. At this time last year, it was hard to imagine that Devine Ozigbo’s graduation would be one of Nebraska’s biggest challenges going into 2019, but here we are. Maurice Washington and Miles Jones, Nebraska’s two returning backs with any playing time from 2018, are huge question marks for different reasons. The incoming backs, Dedrick Mills, Rahmir Johnson, and Ronald Thompkins, all have potential but are unproven.

Players to Watch

  • Jaylin Bradley. Ozigbo is gone. The competition for running back carries won’t arrive until fall camp. So this spring, Bradley will be competing with Wyatt Mazour and the other walk-on running backs for a chance to get the carries that Ozigbo had last year. Bradley didn’t see the field last year, and with the other backs coming, this spring may be Bradley’s last, best chance to really make an impact and earn a spot on the depth chart.
  • Cameron Jurgens. One of the biggest open positions for Nebraska in 2019 is center, and Jurgens has taken a strange path to the position. Jurgens was a four-star prospect in Nebraska’s 2018 class (.9227 composite, according to 247 Sports) – as a tight end. But after a redshirt year, Jurgens switched positions from tight end to offensive line and looks to be competing for a spot at center. Given his composite ranking, Jurgens’ athletic prowess is unquestioned. If he can make the switch in positions – and make no mistake, it’s a massive switch – then Nebraska could get a quick infusion of talent in the middle of the offensive line.
  • Jaevon McQuitty. Much like with Bradley, there is an opening in the depth chart at X receiver, and McQuitty has his best opportunity to take advantage and seize a spot. He’ll have some competition from players like Mike Williams and Andre Hunt, in addition to the freshmen receivers coming in the fall. So this spring is the time for McQuitty to make his move, if it’s going to happen.

DEFENSE

Returning Strengths

  • Defensive Line. The returning experience is there. Particularly with the addition of graduate transfer Darrion Daniels, Nebraska front should have both experience and depth coming back. The production of that front last year, of course, wasn’t what anyone thought (no. 96 nationally in rush defense and no. 76 nationally in sacks, according to com). But after a year in defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s system (and, in all candor, a year removed from former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco), perhaps the unit we thought would be a strength in 2018 will actually become one in 2019.
  • Secondary Starters. Three of Nebraska’s four starters in the secondary should be decided going into spring football. Dicaprio Bootle was Nebraska’s best and most consistent cornerback throughout 2018, and Lamar Jackson responded to his benching early in the season to solidify himself as a starter. At safety, neither starter returns, but Deontai Williams showed such athleticism and natural ability that it would be stunning not to see him on the top line of the depth chart this year.
  • Mohammed Barry. Martinez is arguably Nebraska’s most important player, but it’s hard to overstate the leadership Barry brings not only to the defense but to the team in general. With a number of Nebraska’s vocal leaders from last season graduating, the mantle looks to fall to Barry to take on that role in 2019.

Biggest Questions

  • Secondary Depth. After the three likely starters, there’s little proven talent in the secondary. There is a tremendous amount of potential, but all unproven. That should be enough to keep Chinander up at night, but also provides an opportunity for someone to stand out.
  • Pass Rush. A pass rush is a defensive back’s best friend, and Nebraska’s pass rush struggled last season. With no obvious pass rush specialist being recruited in this year’s class, Nebraska will be looking to manufacture a rush from the talent already on the roster. A healthy JoJo Doman staying at outside linebacker should help, and a return to 2017 form for Ben Stille may be part of the answer.
  • Run Defense. Take another look at Nebraska’s performance against teams like Wisconsin and Iowa – if you can stomach it. Wisconsin averaged 7.7 yards per carry against Nebraska, while Iowa averaged 5.5 yards per carry. Nebraska simply will be able to win the B1G West if it cannot significantly improve how it defends power running teams.

Players to Watch

  • Breon Dixon. After transferring from Mississippi, last year it looked like Dixon might be the kind of immediate infusion of SEC talent that could give Nebraska’s defense an instant jolt. But it didn’t happen for Dixon last year, who saw very little of the field and was unable to make an impact. With a year in the system, 2019 is the time for Dixon to make his move.
  • Avery Anderson/Eric Lee. Yeah, I know it’s cheating to list two guys here. But Anderson and Lee were both highly regarded recruits, now in their last year at Nebraska. With the questions remaining about depth in the secondary, these two seniors have a door open to see the field and leave an impact in 2019.
  • Collin Miller. Will Honas came in as a junior college transfer last year and looked to be part of the puzzle for Nebraska’s transition on defense. But an injury against Purdue knocked Honas out for the season, and is still recovering from that injury. So outside of incoming freshman Jackson Hannah, Miller has the opportunity this spring to solidify a starting position at inside linebacker.

GBR, baby.